Backstage Ottawa

A passion for privacy

Anthony Wilson-Smith July 22 1996
Backstage Ottawa

A passion for privacy

Anthony Wilson-Smith July 22 1996

A passion for privacy

Backstage Ottawa

Anthony Wilson-Smith

If Prime Minister Jean Chrétien could do it over again, says someone who knows him well, he probably would have attended the opening ceremonies of last week’s International Conference on AIDS in Vancouver after all. Instead, he stayed away, and was widely condemned. Officially, the non-reason given by his office for his non-attendance was that he was “too busy.” Unofficially, there were concerns about noisy demonstrators, and a backlash over the government’s refusal to say whether it will renew $40 million in annual funding for AIDS research and treatment.

Perhaps similar concerns also help to explain why the Prime Minister again broke with tradition and was nowhere near his home province of Quebec on either June 24, the province’s Fête Nationale, or on Canada Day. Those were astonishing oversights for someone who complains, as Chrétien does so often, that not enough people speak up for the merits of Canada in Quebec. The temptation is to say that the Prime Minister and his advisers now believe that when the going gets tough, the tough go golfing. But Chrétien has proven his endurance and mental toughness too many times for that. Rather, those incidents are reminders that Jean Chrétien is a far more complex, and private, person than most Canadians realize.

There is an enduring image of Chrétien as a bluff backslapper who knows everyone in a room and takes charge the moment he enters. If that description was ever true, it demonstrably has not been the case since he became liberal leader in 1990. Public appearances are the part of the job that Chrétien likes least whether the crowds are adoring or admonishing. One reason he escapes the opprobrium aimed at so many politicians is that he so obviously cares so little about the traditional perquisites of office.

Chrétien says of himself that he has few friends, and most have nothing to do with politics. He makes a point of not attending social events such as weddings or funerals involving work associates (although he quietly broke that rule recently to attend the

Jean Chretien has shown that he has little time for the trappings that go along with the job

wedding of one of Senator Pietro Rizzuto’s relatives). He wears his love for Canada on his sleeve, but his feelings about his family, though just as deep, are something he will not discuss. (Many associates remarked that Chrétien appeared in a funk last week, but few knew the reason: his son, Michel, currently serving a three-year prison term for sexual assault, had a decision on his parole postponed.)

Unusually for a politician, Chrétien seems to savor being alone. As opposition leader, he often used to eat by himself at Hy’s, a downtown Ottawa steak house frequented by political lobbyists, aides and party workers. It was convenient, Chrétien said, because “this way I can say hello to lots of those people without actually having to eat with them.” Now, before making important decisions, he often tells his staff to cancel his schedule and hold all telephone calls so that he can spend time in his office chair, reflecting.

Chrétien is most at ease in small gatherings or private ones, where his self-deprecating manner and sometimes rough humor work best. At the recent First Ministers’ meeting, one target was Alberta’s Ralph Klein. He skipped the Team Canada trip to Asia last January because, Klein said, he feared Chrétien would raise constitutional issues on the trip and he didn’t want to be stuck “talking about the Constitution at 35,000 feet.” At the last meeting, Klein said that if the Constitution was discussed, he would leave the room. When Chrétien suggested another Team Canada trip, Klein repeated his fear of constitutional talks in the sky. But Chrétien won guffaws by responding: “Not to worry, Ralph, if we do that on the plane, you can always step outside.”

What does it all mean? For one, the question of AIDS funding remains unresolved, Quebec secession is more of an issue than ever, unemployment is on the rise, but no one in Ottawa seriously doubts that the Prime Minister and his government will win re-election. Canadians may not always like what Jean Chrétien’s government does—or does not do—but they would still buy a used car from this man.